REDCREST is upon us. The 2024 installment takes place next week at Lay Lake, just outside of Birmingham. This venue brings tremendous history in professional bass fishing. In what now seems like a different era, Lay Lake hosted the Bassmaster Classic four times over a 15-year period. George Cochran won there in a grinder of a tournament. Jay Yelas, Boyd Duckett and KVD each prevailed later with heavier hauls.

Only one of those previous winners will join the 49 others next week, but it’s an incredibly stacked field.

Sure, we’ve got all the BPT regulars we expect to be there, including those right in the middle of major hot streaks. Wheeler, Connell, Sprague and the rest of the top seeds will bring their A-games, for sure. Justin Lucas is coming off a career day, with a 40-pound-plus haul recently on Santee Cooper. All have relied heavily on the latest techniques and lures to take their bass fishing to a new level.

We must consider the other BPT monsters. Michael Neal will be there, as will Jordan Lee, Alton and Alton, Jr. and Edwin Evers, of course. Each brings tremendous championship-level experience and wins. Ditto for reigning REDCREST champion Bryan Thrift.

There’s another list of perennial qualifiers who are just plain due. Guys like Mark Rose, Andy Morgan, Ott DeFoe and Andy Montgomery always need to be considered. Their experience speaks for itself, and eventually, one of them will find themselves near the lead on the final day of REDCREST, auto-gear will take over and propel them to victory.

We need to consider some of the up-and-comers, as a few have placed themselves solidly among the best on Tour. Spencer Shuffield immediately comes to mind. Matt Becker turned things upside-down last season by taking down the final event and corresponding AOY. No one saw that coming.

All valid considerations to take MLF’s biggest crown. But we’re leaving one small group out, one that contains three anglers who are in a unique situation where their first REDCREST title would likely be their last.

Kevin VanDam. John Cox. Dakota Ebare.

Each of these anglers will be competing at REDCREST with the BPT regulars, and each is now on a different career path. Can one of them take the trophy?

Normally, I would insist it’s impossible. If history is any indictaion, most “asterisk” qualifiers perform poorly. College anglers, winners of single events that slide in, amateurs working their way up; rarely do these unique situations make a move on a championship tournament. Of course, there have been exceptions (Bryan Kerchal proving anything’s possible), but it’s rare. Usually, it seems these anglers are just competing for show, hoping to do well and move on.

VanDam may fall into that category; it’s hard to imagine him thinking of much more than the next chapter in his career, competitive fishing ending for good after REDCREST. But VanDam has always been a competitive machine. It's evident anytime you’re around him in his element. That gear we see in major sports – from prize fighters to cyclists to Olympic athletes – that zone, if you will, that’s always apparent when VanDam climbs behind the wheel of his boat at blast-off.

VanDam has won at Lay Lake before – something that always needs to be considered. It’s hard to believe it’s been 14 years since he put on a master’s class in coldwater lipless crankbait fishing. But that was a time before FFS, when domination still lied in casts and retrieves, and reading the conditions and the bass by feel, rather than blips on a screen. Two completely different methods that I’m not sure even VanDam can overcome.

John Cox is a lot of people's favorite to do well, but not necessarily the best pick. The guy has shallow water down pat, but this will be a deep-water event, to some degree. Lay Lake has always been a body of water where small, obscure hotspots decide the tournament. Fish management, rotation, angling pressure; these are always major factors here. Cox may be able to flex a bit with spawning bass – he’s one of the best at that game, too. But it will be doubtful if enough bass will be on the bank for a legitimate challenge, and FFS isn’t his game.

Dakota Ebare has the best shot among the three. Ebare is a relentless competitor; the ultimate grinder. He’s got an affinity for big prizes. And he’s mastered the game of offshore fishing right along with the best in the business. Ebare is only lacking one thing: experience with major titles. Normally, I’d say that the potential would exist for him to get rattled. However, with Ebare’s recent decision to leave the BPT for a shot at B.A.S.s., I’d guess he considers this tournament a money-grab as much as anything. That could prove to be dangerous for the others.

I’m not making a prediction to win, but I am predicting an extremely close event with respectable weight. Lay Lake fishes too small for anyone to run away with the tournament, and today’s technology will allow anglers to take advantage of offshore populations.

The winner will certainly earn it and place themselves solidly at the forefront of the new game of bass fishing.

(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)